Asian Music and Dance

Shobana Jeyasingh

Born in Chennai, India but now a resident of London, Shobana Jeyasingh has carved out a reputation as one of the UK’s most articulate and dynamic choreographers. In an exclusive interview with Pulse, Shobana shares her passion for creating work science-fiction-like, that imagines the future. Incisive, insightful and fiercely individual, Shobana takes the lonely road.

Trained in bharatanatyam, Shobana Jeyasingh formed her eponymous company in 1988 and has subsequently created a body of work marked by a restless, probing and resolutely contemporary intelligence. Among the many composers from whom Jeyasingh has commissioned scores are Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Jocelyn Pook, Errollyn Wallen, Scanner and Orlando Gough. The latter provided the music for her most recent production, Just Add Water?

Donald Hutera: You’ve been through many phases as artist and maker – from solo to ensemble work; starting with a women-only company, then bringing men into the mix; finding alternative ways for the body to express itself, in part by incorporating other techniques into your kinetic vocabulary; making a radical shift away from traditional dance’s adherence to music and so on. After all that, how would you sum up Shobana the choreographer in 1988 versus Shobana now?

Shobana Jeyasingh: Whenever I finish a piece I always leave with lots of questions. My next piece tends to be about trying to find the answers, and that leaves you with another set of questions. To people who’ve seen the finished product it probably looks very different, but my concerns have been the same. I’m just answering questions from the piece before. When you make dance it’s basically about engaging with other human beings. But with choreography, more than any art form, you can’t help but be implicated in the flux of life. The bigger change – the scenery and cultural flow around me – has changed incredibly. That has nothing to do with me. It’s to do with the way Britain has changed, and funding, and the people who audition. Everything I do is influenced by the skills base of the dancers. For instance, at the moment I have somebody who does kalari. I like kalari.

DH: Why?

“In classical dance the script is the steps of the dance. In contemporary dance you’ve got to write the script and direct it.”

SJ: In classical dance – say bharatanatyam – the body is very much at home in its environment. It’s about feeling secure, comfortable and confident. Whereas with a martial arts form like kalari the body is basically training itself for combat, but not in a violent, unorganised way. It’s a kind of choreographed combat. I quite like the tension that this puts the body under, but I certainly don’t recruit people by saying, You’ve got to have kalari. It’s more to do with looking at what the people who’ve been interested in working with me bring. On the whole they’re people who’ve got slightly complicated hinterlands anyway. They probably know more than one dance language. They might have some connection to India, but sometimes they don’t.

DH: Has the evolution of your work been organic, or were there moments of quite consciously breaking with the past and reforming your ideas about dance?

SJ: I didn’t have a master plan. I didn’t think, I want to break with the past. Those kind of decisions are so much smaller in real life. I met Michael Nyman by accident at the Riverside Studios, and I liked his music. Our collaboration came from incidental conversations. Listening to his string quartet I noticed the complete lack of monumental quality you had with the South Indian line-up of dance musicians – the way the drum clearly gives you all the rhythmic information, with one instrument. With Nyman that percussive information was shared between four instruments. This terrified me at the beginning because I didn’t know which instrument I wanted to be listening to at any particular point. And that made me think about de-monumentalising the information spatially, and about using four dancers. That’s how the ensemble idea came about.

DH: Could you say more about how this rethinking of the music affected your dance-making?

SJ: I’ve come from a tradition where body and music hold hands. The whole test of the dancer’s virtuosity is how well they follow patterns of the music. A bit like the ballet. After a few years I felt I didn’t really want to do that any more. I became more and more seduced by the dynamic narrative and musicality of the body. I still wanted music, but I was quite interested in what the relationship between it and the dancing body could be. We’re so dramatically programmed to dance to music. If something’s dividing time into sets of threes, we instinctively start phrasing everything in threes. We can’t help it. There’s a tension when you ask dancers not to do that – a kind of a screech. For me it’s far more interesting to find the phrase that suits the movement, which may or may not arrange itself in the way the composer’s arranged the sounds. I still favour uncounted over counted movement, which is another huge shift. When I want  something particular to happen, they count. But I never start with counts because I think it strangles movement. I always find myself choosing moments where the body is at odds with the space around it, and the music. There’s got to be some small area where they’re rubbing up against each other rather than all going in a flow. I’m very anti-flow.

DH: Do you see movement before you get to the studio – in your head?

SJ: I see a concept for a movement. On rare occasions one can see an image, but on the whole I need bodies moving in front of me because that’s really what makes me think. I rarely go into the studio with a phrase made on myself because in the company there’s such a range of different dance histories. At some point they all have to cohere. Finding coherence is about understanding what makes something authentic for each person, and trying to tap that. The act of choreography, if you like, is designing those individuals into one narrative. In classical dance the script is the steps of the dance. In contemporary dance you’ve got to write the script and direct it.

DH: Your scripts tend to have many layers.

SJ: That’s because the people have. It’s only when you have many layers that you can actually find a coherence. I think it’s impossible to integrate without those layers. Otherwise choreography would be a kind of fascist activity. [laughs]

DH: You started with bharatanatyam and then drew upon other techniques. Is there a genre that’s particularly attracted you?

“I’m always amazed when filmmakers try to imagine the body of the future, because that imagining of the body is what choreography does.”

SJ: Are there dance genres? I can talk about film genres. I find science fiction the most inspiring genre for choreography. It’s a choreographic medium. Blade Runner has influenced a lot of my thinking. Like good choreography, good science fiction – even though it’s about the future – is really a metaphor for now that uses time, space and bodies to make its narrative. I’m always amazed when filmmakers try to imagine the body of the future, because that imagining of the body is what choreography does. It tends to be a sort of superbody, like in The Terminator films. The Terminator is telling us something about a particular culture, a particular time in history. That’s what I hope I’m doing in my work also – creating a cultural body that I find all around me.

DH: Maybe I should call this piece 2009: A Dance Odyssey. [laughter] To continue, do you think there’s a style in your work that other dancers or choreographers would like to emulate?

SJ: I’m the wrong person to ask.

DH: You do recognise yourself as a pioneer, don’t you? Your interest in the mix of cultures has certainly exerted an influence.

SJ: All I can say is I’m a pioneer for myself. It’s like hacking a path through the jungle, not just in dance but in terms of being a woman and an Asian. But I haven’t looked back to see whether anyone’s following. Everybody influences everybody else, don’t they? As for the kind of things I hope I’ve influenced, I know when I first came to Britain and engaged with the Arts Council we used to be known as ethnic dancers. Now it’s something else. The dialogue between the status quo and the people at the margins in dance has changed. Britain on the whole is more at ease with itself. Some of that has rubbed off onto the dance here, hopefully, although I see far more progress and a hybrid, at-ease feeling in the world of literature than in dance. 

DH: Do you think there’s a British Asian genre?

“I probably have things in common with Russell Maliphant or Jonathan Burrows who, like me, came from classical backgrounds and then shifted.”

SJ: I haven’t noticed it. There are people who perhaps haven’t gone through mainstream education institutions. Those who don’t share that training, or that kind of indoctrination of the body, are going to make dance that looks different because their starting point is different. But I don’t think that the imagination of each particular choreographer has to do with genres. I probably have things in common with Russell Maliphant or Jonathan Burrows who, like me, came from classical backgrounds and then shifted. Wayne [McGregor] and I are both interested in the space between formality and something less rule-bound, and in the theatricality of dance. Sue [Siobhan Davies] and I share a passion for composition. In that way I feel very close to her. For me choreography’s about designing movement. Maybe that’s why I’m not interested in generating the movement myself. I don’t think that’s the choreographer’s core job. Generating movement  for me is having a table, a pen and a paper and writing and composing the movement. That has nothing at all to do with ethnic roots.

DH: Who or what have been your best teachers?

SJ: Obviously my bharatanatyam teacher, Samraj Pillai, who died about four years ago. I didn’t go to a dance college. My subject was literature, and I’ve got lots of English teachers whom I can point to as people who influenced me. Also, in terms of dance, there’s Kamala Laxman. She was a dancer in films, and a bit like the Margot Fonteyn of bharatanatyam. When I was a little girl I found her captivating. Finally I saw her dance when she was age 60. Even in still photographs there was something alluring about her. That’s the reason I went to Samraj Pillai – his father was her student.

DH: Some people might call your work very cerebral. How do you feel about that?

SJ: Why not? We’re all cerebral. We wouldn’t be able to exist if we weren’t thinking.But I think you have to define what cerebral is.

DH: There’s a great deal of thought in what you do.

“It’s a rather sad fact that dance literacy – kinaesthetic literacy – is the least developed of all the literacies.”

SJ: Is cerebral a polite way of saying the work is a bit cold? The dances I made in the past were very bharatanatyam dances. The dancers used to feel it was very cold because I wasn’t using the narrative part of the dance. They didn’t find it emotional because there was no storyline. To them it seemed a mechanical arrangement of bodies. I always found this strange because I find a dancer on stage emotional per se. Obviously there’s a difference in expectations. But I haven’t heard that accusation or whatever it is levelled at me recently. I enjoy thinking. For me every dance is like a crossword puzzle. All the pieces are there, you just have to find and then put them in the right order. In the best possible world structure is an emotional experience. But you also need an audience that is empathetic to dance structures. It’s a rather sad fact that dance literacy – kinaesthetic literacy – is the least developed of all the literacies from school-going age onwards. So one can’t be surprised if all the structuring that choreographers do – the composition – is not communicating itself. Dance-makers have to survive in a culture that doesn’t promote bold artistic choices. All around us we hear, What’s your marketing profile? Who’s the celebrity you’re working with now? How many tickets are you going to sell? What’s your branding like?

DH: Because of that system have you had to make compromises?

SJ: I suppose my name is not up in lights because I haven’t made compromises. It’s very difficult, like swimming upstream. You always feel you’re working against a culture that’s not supporting you in your artistic development.

DH: Does that mean it’s been two decades of struggle?

SJ: Definitely.

DH: Has the struggle been worth it?

SJ: That’s difficult to answer. I don’t know. I change my mind about it every day. It’s a real bugger. As I said, it’s an unsupportive climate. It’s not individuals. Dance itself has changed. It used to be an artistic activity. Now it’s an economic activity. For some lucky people those two activities coincide. You have the Damien Hirsts, and others who are probably doing very good work. But if you’re in an artistic climate that’s only supporting one kind of work and not the other, then for people whose work happens to be different it becomes much harder.

DH: Let’s talk more about collaborators. You’ve mentioned dancers and composers. What about visual designers?

SJ: In any dance piece you’re trying to create a metaphor. The stage space has to communicate that, so those collaborations are vital. Especially lighting, because it completely influences the way I put movements together.

DH: And the way they’re perceived.

SJ: Yes. Lighting changes the emotional tone of something. The studio isn’t a very good place to make artistic judgments. Seventy per cent of the ones I make I have to revise once I see it in the theatre. There it’s not change, but fine-tuning. For me the mark of a good collaborator is someone who’s willing to change. Lucy [Carter, Jeyasingh’s regular lighting designer] is brilliant about that.

DH: Do you think bharatanatyam in its classical form can stand its ground in the 21st century?

SJ: Of course. People ask me, If you change like this what’s going to happen to bharatanatyam? Are we going to recognise it? But it’s like ballet. Is ballet going to die out even though Forsythe does all kinds of strange things, as does Wayne? And if it’s going to change there’s no point asking this question, because history has deemed that it will change. But as long as people want to invest in it, it’s going to be there.

DH: What advice would you give to young South Asian dance aspirants about the professional dance world?

SJ: Don’t. [Much laughter] That’s just a joke. Honestly, I’m probably the worst person to give advice. Do your thing, I suppose.

DH: What would you still like to achieve in the next decade as a dance artist?

SJ: I’d like to be working.

DH: Let’s turn briefly to Just Add Water? The production came about in part because of your interest in food as a metaphor for the way we live now. Is that right?

SJ: It started when I was commissioned to make a piece by the Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company. They wanted me to use voice, something I hadn’t thought about. In the actual piece I knew I didn’t want dancers to be actors. I wanted them to keep moving. So I tried to use voice as another limb. It’s been in my mind for a long time – food as a marker for cultural differences, and how the same food can have such different histories and perceptions behind it.

Working with Orlando again, and having worked a little bit with voice, sort of clinched it.

DH: The dancers in Just Add Water? aren’t acting the words, they’re –

SJ: Performing them as dancers.

DH: As a representation of ideas, and a way to move the piece along.

SJ: That’s right. We started by working with recipes, which was brilliant because at first I didn’t need a scriptwriter. The whole piece is a kind of metaphor for an integrated unit because we have our different histories and yet, as dancers, manage to find a coherence. And Britain definitely needs a bit of coherence at the moment. Did you see the projection of the word marinade? For me it’s the process of cooking that’s the most helpful as a recipe for integration. To let people be very close, like two elements in a marinade, and let nature do the rest. It’s an exchange.

DH: Finally, what changes have you seen in the tastes of dance audiences over the last twenty years?

SJ: One change – maybe it has to do with audiences – is that ten years ago when we went to a school and did workshops anywhere in Britain, if we did some bharatanatyam footwork or threw in some patterning fingers there’d always be a reaction: Oh, how quaint or how wonderful or how silly. But the dance world has become so hybrid that those sorts of differences are just taken in stride. Now on the whole I find the average British dancer is very happy in lots of different types of dance culture.

DH: Which means that the average British audience member is widening his or her view too.

SJ: That’s history, isn’t it?



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